We've reached the last month of the year and I've been revisiting a lot of what I've been listening to over the past eleven months. That includes the albums that I've been overlooking, and PJ Harvey's most recent is certainly one of them.
When this album was released, I found it somewhat offputting and quickly filed it away. Musically, it was undoubtedly PJ Harvey at or near the peak of her powers. Her voice remains uncannily potent even after twenty five years as a major recording artist, conveying rage, defiance, and empathy in equal parts, better than just about any other songwriter in music. The album also contains her bluesiest work in two decades, with "The Wheel" as a standout that comes closer to recreating the feel of "To Bring You My Live" more than anything she's recorded since. There are no shortage of anthemic choruses, and the rage against the dying of the light (and Walmart sized corporations) that is "The Community of Hope" ranks among her very best album openers.
However, I couldn't get past the notion that PJ Harvey is trying a bit too hard to make a statement, resorting to political tourism and acting as a vehicle for the ambitions of others, rather than writing about what she truly feels in her heart. "Let England Shake" looked at war and imperialism through the eyes of First World War soldiers, which only could have come from the mind of an English soul attuned with the beauty and serenity of the countryside. And even then, nobody else possessed the genius to see things from that angle. On "The Hope Six Demolition Project", she's parachuted into complex political landscapes, and as an outsider, she's well-meaning but impressionable. Her reportage lacks the nuance of "Let England Shake" and even many of her third person, character-driven writing (e.g. most of "Is This Desire").
Community leaders in Washington were supposedly upset at her labeling their neighbourhoods as shitholes on "The Community of Hope". Lines like these come off like they were fed to her by local guides with a personal or political agenda. PJ Harvey rarely throws out lines to shock just for the sake of it, she's been above those kind of gimmicky quote-bait lyrics for her entire career. It concludes with "they're gonna put a Wal-Mart here" which actually works to bring the song to a rousing conclusion, but is also as subtle as Wal-Mart itself. Corporations are running America and trampling on the poor -- how unoriginal and exactly the kind of giftwrapped story that can be easily fed to foreigners looking to confirm their biases about America. Look, I'm not saying that sentiment isn't correct, but PJ Harvey used to always find ways to look beyond the completely obvious, either to peer into the souls of her subjects deeper that her contemporaries would dare to, or to say the obvious in a decidedly non-obvious and unique way.